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California governor’s cannabis adviser sees ‘path forward’ toward national legalization

A top aide to California Gov. Gavin Newsom told a local cannabis industry group webinar audience on April 20 – or 4/20, a day with significance to users – that widespread legalization in the United States could happen soon.

“There’s a path forward,” said Nicole Elliott, the governor’s top adviser on cannabis, to the attendees of Napa Valley Cannabis Association’s Instagram Live stream.

She expressed her optimism within the week that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act, House Resolution 1996. This fourth House house vote on the proposal had 321 in favor. The bill, designed to provide safe harbor for banks to do business with cannabis entities, was re-introduced into a new U.S. Congress and new administration.

Elliott stopped short of assuring the virtual event guests that full legalization would happen under the Biden rule.

Regardless, Elliott said that, with California legalizing adult use in 2016, the feds may compromise with a relaxing of rules on interstate commerce — which would essentially allow for transportation of related goods over state boundaries.

Then again, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said April 20 that the U.S. Senate has a plan to finally legalize cannabis on a federal level, an effort that had died in the last session.

April 20 was the 50th anniversary of when four San Rafael High School students are said to have had their inaugural meetings at 4:20 p.m. to enjoy the herb. They “came out” in High Times magazine 20 years afterward.

The cannabis culture has come a long way since the days of shoulder-length hair, bell bottoms and disco balls.

After all, a Pew Research study has found 91% of U.S. adults favor marijuana legal in some form — with California leading the pack of states that have endorsed it. According to a new study by the U.S. Drug Test Centers, these states have collectively raked in $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue.

California gained almost half the total U.S. tax coffers by taking in $1 billion last year, with $30 million of that doled out for University of California and California State University research programs.

“That’s impressive,” Elliott told attendees.

Still, there are challenges.

Legal cannabis entities are operating under an unfair advantage since illegal operations remain a threat. Illegal growers don’t pay taxes, while legal businesses pay both federal and state governments.

“The illegal market has not been eliminated,” Elliott said. “Federal lands are still a problem when it comes to illegal cannabis cultivation.”

Moreover, many languish in prison for minimal drug crimes since the U.S. law still lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. One of the chat room guests asked what can be done.

“(The state is) looking into expunging records. We need to make sure the (District Attorney) is engaged,” she said, while paring these drug offenses down to a local level.

And not all local jurisdictions embrace cannabis in the same way.

Elliott empathized with Napa Valley cannabis advocates since their county shows no sign of allowing cultivation. The county has taken its time through the years in discussing relaxed restrictions. And in the face of opposition from groups like the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Board of Supervisors recently met and put the idea on hold again.

The birthplace of cannabis in the state, Marin County, is happy to continue banning cultivation in the unincorporated areas. Instead, the county has given a thumbs up to retail delivery.

Sonoma County to grow by leaps and bounds

Meanwhile, Sonoma County stands at the precipice of embracing cannabis cultivation in a bigger way.

After 18 hours of deliberation, debate and deciphering government regulations, the county Planning Commission wrapped up the third meeting last April 15 with a 3-2 vote on an ordinance to expand the amount of cannabis grown on a parcel to up to 10% in certain zones. Growth has been held to one acre up to this point.

The proposal was headed to the county Board of Supervisors next. The Cannabis Land Use Ordinance would move the program into the Agriculture Commissioner’s office and require changes to zoning and the General Plan, the county’s blueprint for land use.

As drafted by staff, the plan would also:

  • Extend cannabis cultivation permit term limits from one to five years.
  • Remove operator qualifications for cultivation activity.
  • Allow growers to transport their own product to others.
  • Delete square-footage limitations.
  • Eliminate cannabis-specific restrictions on tours and promotional events.

After numerous town halls, the controversial proposal was considered in the commission’s March 18 and 25 and April 15 meetings. The first brought out 68 people, who provided mixed opinions. The raucous public hearings highlighted issues ranging from watershed hazards and waste management to odor control and scenic corridor views.

But the plan moved forward, even if that movement appears to be slow.

“I would not want to put a recommendation (out there) that we slow this process down,” Commissioner Larry Reed said, shortly after a call was made to conduct an environmental impact report and before the ordinance language was read into the record.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, agriculture, energy and transportation as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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